“I had never met any Christians back home, and even had a negative attitude towards any kind of belief . . . and Christianity was one of them.”
—Megumi, student from Japan
By C.A. Rose*
More than 900,000 international students and visiting scholars walk the sidewalks of our university campuses today. How exciting to have these bright, future leaders studying here! Yet, at the same time, statistics tell us that most international students (70 percent) will never enter an American home. Many come from restricted-access countries where Christianity is ignored or oppressed. They arrive on our soil with an attitude like Megumi. Most will never be seated at our tables, share in a home-cooked meal, or hear the stories of how we, as followers of Jesus, celebrate the joys and process the trials that come our way on life’s journey.
Many international students come to the United States thinking the typical American’s life is a drama similar to what they see in a Hollywood movie or on network television in their homeland. The students who come here may leave the U.S. with college degrees, but with little or no exposure to authentic followers of Jesus.
For international students, Christian hospitality offers a refreshing break from the all-too-common party scene, dorm food, academic stress, and the absence of family, friends, and familiar places. There is power in hospitality—not in trying to pressure or convert students to our belief system, but in simply showing God’s welcoming heart to those who are traveling, in this case, through the college season of life with its often harsh and confusing elements.
Magazines on grocery store shelves attempt to mislead us to believe that hospitality is about cooking and decorating like Martha Stewart. Actually, the Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, has two parts: philo meaning love, and xenia meaning foreigner or stranger. The hospitality shown to foreigners was meant to refresh and renew, to represent the love God has for weary travelers.
At our church in the Midwest, we do our best to roll out the red carpet and welcome internationals to our community. High school and college-age students, single parents, large families, empty nesters, and retirees all play an important role in showing hospitality to foreign students at our nearby university.
University students are well-suited for reaching out to internationals on their campus—many are seated next to them in their Biology 101 class. These Christian students serve as language partners, give rides, answer questions about classes, and share life with their international friends. Japanese student Megumi shares her experience:
My first roommate was a Christian girl. I had never met any Christians back home, and even had a negative attitude towards any kind of belief . . . and Christianity was one of them. I honestly was kind of nervous. However, she was just very kind to me. I could barely speak or understand English. She was patient—spending time with me, trying to understand me, and even taking me home to meet her family and visit her hometown.
Through time, I started to change my mind toward Christianity. I came to realize, “Christians are not scary, but they are nice.” We were roommates for two years, which gave me time to realize something: there was something different in her life, and it was very attractive to me. I saw how she treated her friends and family, how she coped with situations, and most of all, I could see joy in her.
I was not really sure what the difference was at first, but now I can tell you that I was seeing Christ in her. It was the beginning of a long journey, but meeting her was the first big turning point for me to come to Christ.
Francis, a French student, tells of his experience in America:
Those two Christian college students that picked me up from the airport, I would learn, were not just any American guys. I quickly became friends with those two students and their friends, and for the first time in my life, I felt people weren’t trying to tag me with a specific identity—they accepted me as I was in spite of my awkwardness, and affirmed my good sides. With time, I would come to witness firsthand that they put people first—they treated me, and each other, with such respect and kindness!
Months went by and they often invited me to play video games and board games. I discovered their peculiar life choices and commitment to the poor and needy, even as they had little themselves. I was invited into their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and went to ski camp in Colorado with them.
I made the choice to spend more time with the college-age Christians I knew because . . . well, they were wrong about their religion, but they were the most interesting people I knew.
What got me was that there were people who believed in good and evil, and who fought for the good. And I wanted to join the fight. Life was not bad, just a bit dull—there had to be more. I particularly realized that after I accepted their invitation to join them on a mission trip to New Orleans. They lived an everyday kind of quiet, epic life, and I thought, if God exists, well, it’s definitely worth living with him.
Friendship Is Easy
Families in our church are also actively involved with international students through the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” program. Friendship Families agree to have a student over for a meal once a month. We try to keep it simple; we want families to feel comfortable and confident they can do this. It’s not a weekly or time-consuming commitment. Families and students are matched by similar interests, and many continue meeting with their student after their commitment ends.
The parents of one Friendship Family, Jim and Leah, have seven children and initially were hesitant about inviting a stranger into their home. But she explains why she’s glad they said yes:
We were assigned a student from the Middle East. I will be honest, when I saw where he was from, my heart skipped a few beats. I had my share of fears about those from the Middle East. Still, I was excited to meet our new student.
We have developed a very special relationship with him. He has been to our home multiple times for dinner, to surprise us with fun gifts, to play games, and just to hang out. Over Christmas, he and a friend came to celebrate with our family and to learn some of our traditions.
He has become a part of our family. Our kids refer to him as their brother, I call him “son,” and he calls me “mom.” He proudly introduces us to his friends as his family.
There are things for which I will be forever grateful. Our student has shown us how important family is, what it means to be very hospitable, and what it means to give someone else your very best. He loves our children in such an amazing way.
Jim and Heather, who are empty nesters, host 10 to 15 international students in their home on Sunday nights. The couple’s motto, “The first time you’re a guest; after that, you’re family,” is familiar to more than 50 students who see them as their American “mom and dad.” Students share food, joys, holidays, struggles, cultural events, university accomplishments, camping, and day trips with Jim and Heather.
As a church family, we host several big events each year to bring together international students, Friendship Families, local resident internationals, and language partners. A goat roast takes place in the fall and pleases many international students in ways Americans can’t imagine. (Truthfully, eating stuffed goat intestines with sausage is not my thing—but they love it.) “This reminds me of home” and similar comments can be heard as hosts and guests eat goat and sheep, chicken, rice, and oogali in a field where more than 200 guests sit on blankets around a bonfire.
Friendship Families and college-age students are great at inviting internationals to join them on a variety of activities like camping, picnics, day trips, and canoe trips, and going to state parks, theme parks, weddings, funerals, garage sales, graduations, birthday celebrations . . . the list gets longer every year.
This isn’t hard to do! Consider bringing along an international student to everyday events and special events that you enjoy, your family enjoys, and your church enjoys. These international students may be like Megumi, who had never met a Christian, or like Francis, who is drawn to the “everyday kind of quietly epic life” that Jesus’ followers are living out.
Let’s open our doors. Let’s set another place at the table. Buy an extra gift or ticket for a guest. Let’s begin to share our lives with the international guests who are waiting for an invitation.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
C.A. Rose (a pen name) and her husband have been welcoming international students into their home for more than 30 years.